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Bleak prospects for future K-12 support

There was no good news about the future of state support for K-12 schools at the Joint Budget Committee’s Friday briefing on the Department of Education’s 2011-12 budget.

Committee staff analyst Carolyn Kampman told the panel and several other lawmakers who sat in that she recommends no increase for schools next year, and she also said lawmakers will need to adjust school finance law if they want to avoid a large mandated increase in schools spending starting in 2012-13.

Staff and committee discussion also indicated that some specialized education programs, specifically the Colorado Counselor Corps and the ASCENT fifth-year program for high school students, might be in the budget crosshairs during the 2011 legislative session.

The budget committee every December receives staff briefings on the proposed budgets for individual state departments in the upcoming budget year, which starts next July 1. It was CDE’s turn Friday.

Current “total program funding” for school operations is $5.4 million, down from about $5.6 million in 2009-10. The state is paying $3.4 billion of this year’s total. The executive branch has proposed a $91 million increase for 2011-12, an amount that won’t cover the costs of enrollment growth and inflation and which falls about $365 million short of what the traditional Amendment 23 funding formula would require.

The 2010 legislature passed a bill that allowed school funding to be reduced in 2010-11, using what’s called the “budget stabilization factor,” and that applies to the upcoming 2011-12 budget as well.

Because that factor currently is set to expire for the 2012-13 budget, “We have a big cliff coming,” Kampman told lawmakers. Returning to use of the previous funding system would require more than $700 million in additional state spending in 2012-13, according to the committee briefing document on CDE spending.

“Over the next five fiscal years, the General Fund appropriation would need to increase by more than one billion dollars,” the document continued.

Kampman suggested that the 2011 legislature consider extending the stabilization factor for one more year to avoid the $700 million cliff and that the 2012 legislature study more lasting changes. “For the longer term, staff recommends that the General Assembly consider making permanent changes to the school finance formula,” the briefing document says. (See pages 24-25 of the document for details.)

Next year might not be the best time to attempt permanent change, Kampman said, noting that there will be a new governor, many new legislators and that lawmakers have to deal with congressional redistricting. She also said the Lobato v. State lawsuit, which challenges the adequacy of state school funding, is scheduled to go to trial in August 2011. (Later in the day, the JBC got a closed-door briefing from the attorney general’s office about Lobato.)

Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen / File photo
Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen

Committee Vice Chair Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, noted, “2011-12 may seem like a walk in the park compared to what the next year will be like.”

Kampman also suggested that legislators be cautious about using the financially stressed State Education Fund, which is used to supplement general state school support and to fund some special programs.

Bernie Gallagher, another analyst who works on education spending, and Kampman also analyzed two special programs in their briefing paper.

The Colorado Counselor Corps is a $5 million program that’s in its final year of funding, although CDE has requested continuation of the effort. JBC staff last year recommended not funding the program, but lawmakers disregarded that advice. Gallagher said, “It’s difficult to determine if this program has had an impact.” (See pages 56-59 of the briefing paper for more details.)

The ASCENT program, created by the 2010 legislature, is a “fifth year” concurrent high school-college enrollment program. The current program had a projected participation of about 237 students at a cost of less than $2 million, but CDE projects it will balloon to 2,481 students and cost of $15.4 million next year. (See pages 33-40.) Kampman suggested capping enrollment at a much lower level.

On other matters, Kampman and Gallagher recommended that the legislature consider clarifying state law on the conversion of private schools to charter schools and on the use of contract schools.

A key function of JBC briefings is for members to raise questions they’d like a particular department to answer at a subsequent budget hearing. Committee members Friday racked up a long list, giving CDE staffers plenty to do before the department’s hearing at 1:30 p.m. next Friday, at which CDE executives will discuss those issues with the committee.

Among the issues raised Friday were queries about the cost of CSAP tests, the tab for expanding tests to include social studies, enrollment shift patterns between districts, spending on full-day kindergarten and preschool programs, the success of the Closing the Achievement Gap program, the health of the State Education Fund, charter school conversions, contract schools and the BEST school construction program.

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